By Amos Onyango
Undoubtedly, the novel coronavirus has completely changed how we live and do things. Globally, court and legal processes remain shrouded in traditional processes of rigidity and very slow to adapt to change. Court processes require human contact, however, the coronavirus has predisposed such interactions to increased chances of getting infected. Cutting down on human connections has become necessary, but these changes should not negatively affect the delivery of justice.
The disease seems to be here to stay. As such, the justice systems and actors cannot continue with operations as before. These actors have to embrace new ways of operating. Embracing technology has never been more relevant, and judicial and legal officers must acquaint themselves with communication platforms both for written and audio-visual communication. So far, Kenya’s Court of Appeal has delivered more than 18 appeal rulings, and made several other decisions which were transmitted to the remand prisons where the suspects are being held. This move was welcomed by lawyers and prison officers who asserted that costs and other security logistics of transporting suspects to court were unnecessary with such developments.
Legal practitioners must learn to digitize their files and other data formats to replace the traditional paperwork for written judgements and pieces of evidence. But that will not be enough. It becomes a matter of priority that all courts and legal officers have access to the internet, power, and assistive devices that will enable the digitization process. In case of these supporting services having problems, legal practitioners should think of back up plans for power, as well as standby technicians who will be vital in cases of technological hitches.
By going digital, the judicial and legal processes may be exposed to cyber risks. Having secure platforms and systems for administering justice must, therefore, be taken into account. Filling of cases and other legal matters will also have to be done electronically. To avoid the vulnerability that comes with soft copy detail, formats that are edit proof, and those that can assure transparency will be most critical.
In cases where transparency lacks, it may as well hinder the much-needed trust in judicial and legal procedures. Lack of transparency will test the levels of trust that the courts and legal officers are required to exhibit by their codes of conduct and other professional rules, as well as fidelity to the rule of law. Finally, the turnaround time for service provision must be clear.
The courts will have to revise their service charters to reflect the new nature of service delivery. Clients should understand the time aspect of service delivery, which in turn will affect the expeditiousness of justice delivery. The wheels of justice, if anything, should not be grounded, but be made faster with the changes that continue to evolve out of the restrictions to human movement occasioned by the global pandemic. The pandemic should be an opportunity to leapfrog and advance legal and judicial practices for all citizens.
Amos Onyango is a cross cultural communication professional and author of three books. He is in charge of programs at the PLO Lumumba Foundation in the 39 African countries where it operates.